Volkswagen’s Golf GTI has been a defining addition to the hot hatch genre since the ground-breaking Mk1 arrived in 1976, although the lineage has not been without its hiccups. When the Mk3 GTI debuted in 1992 it was a stark contrast to what came before. Its 2.0-litre 8v motor felt overworked when encased within the larger, heavier hatch’s shell and the handling was similarly affected. Things didn’t get much better with the Mk4; even a somewhat exciting 180hp 20v turbo run-out unable to fix the reputational damage. The Golf GTI was good, but it failed to recapture the buzziness that made the first two generations so famous.
Praise the Mk5 Golf GTI for putting things right. With former VW chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder slating the Mk4 as “a good example of marketing getting it wrong”, the car to follow it needed to represent a revolution for the model. It grew larger, yes, and heavier again as a result, but the turbocharged 2.0-litre it came with was quick out of the box and the chassis was back to offering what we all loved so much about the original. It mixed comfort, poise and security with a dose of agility and playfulness. The RS Megane and EP3 Civic Type R provided the hair on fire thrills, but the Golf willingly took one small step down from that to add a large portion of maturity.
For the Mk6 Golf GTI to continue the upward trend was always going to be a tough ask, what with it making do with the same PQ35 underpinnings as its predecessor – a return to the evolutionary philosophy of decades past.. When it was launched in 2009 it was about the same size and weight as the Mk5, but now had 210hp from the EA888 2.0-litre up front and VW’s then brand spanking new XDS electronic differential tech to dispatch it. The exterior looked smart, too, with VW design boss Klaus Bischoff opting for continued subtlety over any sort of response to Honda’s spaceship-like FN2 Civic. The Golf GTI’s form was well and truly re-established.
Some might argue that the Mk5 does pretty much as good a job for less, or that the earlier car, with its more dramatic and shapely details, is the better looker. There’s no questioning the improvements made beneath the Mk6’s body, however, with that aforementioned power output and XDS technology making for the most compelling performance offering to hail from the ranks of GTI. Sit inside a Mk6 GTI and you’re faced with a refreshing mix of analogue and digital; there’s a small infotainment screen with satnav on top of conventional dials and buttons. It’s all brilliantly functional.
Maybe a bit too much, actually. With only the tartan cloth on the seats to signal its ranking (the Mk6 manual doesn’t even get a golf ball gear knob!), this GTI feels fairly bland from inside. It’s a trend that continues on the move, the EA888 motor up front quiet and pulling with the clutch-lifted torque of a diesel. It’s all deliberate, of course, as it gives the GTI the remarkably easy-to-drive characteristics it’s now famous for. In town you can drive like a cabbie and shortcut your way to higher gears, leaving the four-pot trundling along. It’ll happily oblige, with combined fuel economy in the mid to high thirties in easy reach as a result – efficiency being among the motor’s biggest improvements from Mk5 to Mk6. In fact, the whole car feels like a more polished Mk5; the steering is light and direct and the seats themselves are supportive so the quality of the product is immediately clear. It’s hard to not instantly like the Mk6 GTI.
Our test car – VW’s 7,800-mile heritage GTI – has passive dampers rather than the optional adaptive setup, so its ride does remain busy and sometimes jiggly over high frequency surface variations. But it glides over speed bumps and drain covers, so definitely classifies as comfortable; compared to more focussed hot hatch equivalents, such as the RS Megane and especially the FN2 Civic, it’s downright plush. And with no drive modes (remember those days?) it feels honest from the get-go, although there’s plenty of energy held higher up the rev range to emphasise what a broadly talented package this is.
Let that 2.0-litre spin up and it gains a second wind that lasts right until the 6,000rpm redline, shifting the 1.3-tonne Golf with real gusto. You can really feel that this is an EA888 at the tail end of years of development. The gearbox is good, too, with a direct, rubberised action through the gate to make this Golf feel every bit as capable today as it did when new. It’s only four tenths and 10hp down on the Mk7, after all. The Mk6 retains all of its predecessor’s best handling traits, too, with a quick to react front end, actual steering feel when that front end is loaded up, and even some mid-corner adjustability, should you trail the brakes on entry. It’s all tidied up by decent traction, although the XDS system isn’t as fool proof as today’s VAQ, with the earlier GTI occasionally letting its inside wheel over rotate by miniscule amounts.
It’s during those close-to-the-limit moments that the Mk6 GTI’s lower peaks are visible. While body control is very good, the Golf is never as dialled in as Renault’s hot Megane, nor is it as hunkered down as Honda’s hard-riding Civic. And although in isolation the electronic steering feels good, the Megane’s rack is in another world for feedback. The Golf also never fully relaxes its electronic stability control, so the fun is somewhat hindered by VW’s pre-set parameters. But these are all traits familiar to the best GTIs of late, and come somewhat inevitably as a result of the Golf’s more rounded personality. A B-road blast will leave you smiling rather than giddy on adrenaline, but there’s no question which car from this segment would be preferable on the drive home. Once you’re settled in it doesn’t even feel dated, helped in part by an infotainment system with satnav, a USB port and Bluetooth.
Those final components are key in justifying the Mk6 GTI’s premium over a Mk5. This is a car that in 2019 feels perfectly adequate for daily use, both in terms of capability and functionality. And with performance not far off the Mk7 GTI, you’re barely taking a hit in terms of outright enjoyment, too – with the obvious exclusion of (much, much pricier) special editions, such as the Mk7’s Clubsport and TCR. Ten grand will buy you a well-kept Mk6 with around 50,000 miles on the clock, which is around a couple of grand more than the equivalent Mk5 and seems like a good deal. That is until you consider the price of equivalent Meganes, which can be had for Mk5 GTI money.
The Golf GTI is pricier for a reason, though. It’s the more mature, better rounded offering, the importance of which should not be underestimated in a model that’s likely to be used as an owner’s main car. The Mk6 is barely more than a successful update to the impressive Mk5. But that’s exactly what makes it so brilliant as a used offering today.
SPECIFICATION – VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI (MK6)
Engine: 1,984cc, inline-4
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 210@5,300rpm
Torque (lb ft): 207@1,700rpm
0-62mph: 6.9 secs
Top speed: 146mph
Price new: £22,995
Price now: c £10,000